Philip K. Dick stories are notoriously difficult to adapt to screen. Blade Runner is probably the best known and most successful example of one that went well. So many others have failed. What Blade Runner did right was not lose track of the internal battle that is part and parcel of Dick’s philosophies. All of his stories are intensely introspective and questioning of life and the meaning of it all, highly psychological and dubious of reality. Most films focus on big effects and action to keep it all going and drop the “boring” bits.
Radio Free Albemuth takes the opposite approach, focusing almost entirely on the philosophical and dialectic. It is incredibly topical (both when it was written and, scarily, now). It is a quiet, intense film that, despite its writing and directing faults, manages to stay interesting. That remains true even as it drifts into open discussions of religion and mythos that may not match your particular beliefs.
Scarfe (Hell on Wheels) and Whigham (True Detective, Boardwalk Empire) lead the film with what can only be described as an extremely understated approach. Some aspects of that work wonderfully–recognition of big things doesn’t have to have nefarious music and hair pulling to be interesting. However, it also makes some of the tension vanish from the screen.
This is where new write/director Simon really got lost… when to raise the energy levels. On the other hand, even if he didn’t use them well, he landed some solid talent, including the leads and smaller roles for Tenney (The Closer) and Alanis Morissette.
There is a lot to think about in this film. Much is put straight in your face by having the characters discuss and question it. But there are subtle layers as well, not to mention reveals. For those that like to chew their movies a bit and have them spark thoughts, it isn’t a wasted evening. If you want high tension, explosions, and chase scenes, you’ll likely fall asleep or curse the person who made you watch the film. Me, I sorta liked it, again despite all its many faults. In some ways it reminded me of Primer, which is unabashedly low energy, low budget, and philosophical. Primer is a better conceived plot, but for the right audience, Albemuth is an interesting watch.